Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.
Last month, Ann Powers celebrated Madonna’s 53rd birthday by collecting her 53 favorite songs from the Material Girl. She posted suggestions on Twitter and I provided my picks along with several others. This went live shortly after Ellen Copperfield’s musings on Madge for This Recording and preceded Carilynn27’s Persephone post that twined Madonna’s music with autobiography and fandom. It also follows a sustained narrative of (predominantly white) women (and girls) taking about, listening to, and playing with Madonna. Lots of media studies criticism in the late 80s and into the 90s sought to understand Madonna as screen subject, fan object, and feminist star text. All of the stuff that will be written about Gaga will have to be built upon this body of work.
I came of age during this time, and remember listening to Madonna with my mother, a fan who didn’t think that allowing me to watch the video for “Like a Prayer” would make me a Satanist. Actually, it clued me in on Madonna being something of a racial fetishist. I also developed my nascent Madonna fandom during my pubescent years through my stepmother. I was fascinated by her outspoken love for Madonna, especially since it seemed so closely tied to adult sexual expression. As a ten-year-old girl, coming across a copy of Erotica was better than any of the Updike or Nin I snuck off my dad’s bookshelf at night. You can’t dance to Rabbit, Run. I also purloined my stepmom’s copy of Sex, which she tucked into the back of her closet.
Erotica was well-received critically, though underrated. Some thought Madonna ran out of ideas, or was just trying to shock people, or simply wasn’t sexy. A few critics claimed Erotica was too cold and calculated to be sexy. I think they miss the point–mediating an image of sexiness usually takes the sex out of it because sexuality tends to operate (and be obfuscated) at a subliminal level. Openly subverting expectations of feminine sexiness and reconfiguring what signifies as sexy for women causes a lot of discomfort. Power is an aphrodisiac, as long as it isn’t actually wielded by women. Many of the scenarios in the “Erotica” video are trite and regressive–lipstick lesbianism, celebrity friends, S&M, problematic assumptions about black sexuality. But I can’t imagine many contemporary pop stars exploring erotic menace or foregrounding explicitly queer images of sexuality in a mainstream context as Madonna did with Erotica, which was released during a time when AIDS casualties and HIV prevention were more greatly emphasized. Plus the album has “Rain” and “Bye Bye Baby,” which are two of my favorite songs. It also has “Did You Do It?,” which, as with all song where Madge raps, you should skip.
Gaga may come the closest to fulfilling Erotica‘s potential. There’s no question that Jo Calderone owes hir existence to Ralph Macchio, Annie Lennox, Andrew Dice Clay, Danny Zuko, and Lenny Bruce. But what I appreciated about Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs was her commitment to it. She didn’t make any costume changes during the night to re-establish her femininity. She kept her breasts bound throughout the ceremony and didn’t wink at the camera. Sure, she was boorish for trying to kiss Britney, whose trembling bottom lip seemed to simultaneously telegraph “Is this a trick?”, “Should I?”, and “I don’t think my manager will approve.” But if you compare Gaga’s performance alongside Katy Perry’s egotistical assumption that a song like “Firework,” which vaguely addresses queer closeted identity by celebrating individual perseverance, is doing something good for the world when it merely aligns herself with a lucrative niche market, Gaga might be moving closer toward pop progress. But I hate “Born This Way” as both a pop song and a political message, so I’m actually hoping Janelle Monáe brings the sex and politics back to pop music. Androids need love too.
But if we’re talking about pop music’s ability to inspire exciting sex, I can’t discredit an album I like a great deal more than Erotica. Sade’s Love Deluxe slunk into American record stores on October 20, 1992, the same day that Madonna’s fifth album initiated controversy. Janet Jackson’s janet. came out the following spring and is more potently erotic than Madonna’s offering, but I think that album requires its own post and a review of Poetic Justice. While many contemporaries sought reinvention to stay relevant, Nigerian British torch singer Sade Adu and her band continue to release reliably warm, enveloping jazz-pop for quiet storms, yacht rides, and power outages. I bought Love Deluxe on tape in junior high as a compromise. I wanted to see Indecent Proposal but my parents were like, “Ummmmm, absolutely not!” “No Ordinary Love” featured prominently in the trailer, so it sufficed until I finally saw Adrian Lyne’s sexist glamorization of kept women and poor business decisions at a girlfriend’s house. The scene in the kitchen is pretty hot, though. But “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” and “I Couldn’t Love You More” are way hotter.
I don’t want to set up a racist, misogynistic binary wherein white female pop stars are cold sexbots and female pop stars of color have erotic energy coursing through their veins. Nor do I want to overlook that Sade’s songs assume heterosexual coupling. But Sade’s articulation of sexuality is predicated on the assumption that these forms of expression are something people do together. Also, sexuality isn’t the only lens through which Sade explores empathy and human connection. Despite the luxe atmosphere Sade’s music often seems to cultivate, many of her songs focus on poverty and the struggle for basic survival. Two such songs on Love Deluxe are “King of Pain” and “Pearls.” The latter track, which is about a poor Somalian woman, always makes me tear up a little. It may be a bit paternalistic in its storytelling, but it’s no less effective.
Thus, I think Sade’s articulation of the erotic is at least as powerful and enduring. Others seem to agree. Molly Lambert recently saw Sade in concert and raved about the performance, Sade’s enduring sexiness, and the sense of community the event created. Ms. Adu turns 53 next January. Let’s remember to wish her a happy birthday.
Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.
I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.
But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.
Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red.
Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.
Let me start this post by making it be about me, so that I can then make it be about somebody else. Last week, my writing kind of took a hit. I’m confident that my work is strong enough to take criticism. I’m also pretty lucky to have a supportive readership and not tangle too often with commenter vituperation the way so many other smart bloggers I know contend with on a regular basis. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed by charges against indulgent rhetoric that’s love-drunk on GRE words. It’s not inaccurate, but it seems sexist to knock a woman for using big words or bridge tenuous connections, especially one who grew up reading the work of music critics like Ann Powers. But folks hate on Joanna Newsom for throwing around words like “etiolated” in a song. But have you rolled that word around in your mouth? It’s kind of awesome.
I don’t mean to compare my prose to Newsom’s verse. Likewise, I don’t mean to suggest I’m in the same room as Throwing Muses founder Kristin Hersh, who is a queen of challenging song form. I just get where they’re coming from. It’s clumsy work to stumble into an elegant sentence. It’s embarrassing to write your feelings down and pass them over to someone else. It’s also liberating when you surprise yourself and tap into something unexpected and true. And as beloved as Hersh’s band was in the early offing, boy did she get shit for bending words. Witness Robert Christgau’s dismissal of her work as bad poetry.
Her elliptical flourishes are all over Rat Girl, an adaptation of her diary from age 18. It was a big year for her. She became friends with super-fan Betty Hutton, who she met while taking college courses. Her band (which she co-founded with stepsister Tanya Donelly) got signed to British underground powerhouse 4AD, then the first American band to hold the distinction. She also battled with bipolar disorder. I dealt with depression at 18 basically by retreating further under the covers to block out all the light that could seep into my pitch-black bedroom. She gave up lithium after becoming pregnant, confronting audiences, video directors, and producers with her pregnant belly.
Rat Girl is kind of hard to pin down for a review and I’m having trouble finding fault with it. I recommend Marisa Meltzer’s Slate write-up, which I linked in a previous post. Anyone familiar with Hersh’s rudderless songs can imagine that linear storytelling is not her thing. Yet I think this memoir gets closest inside the protagonist’s head, expanding and contracting as her mind ambles past the thoughts in her head with the actions that transpire between 1985 and 1986. I realize that drafting a list to break down what I liked about an autobiography as elliptical as Rat Girl doesn’t honor its spirit, but here goes.
1. Hersh’s candor toward her internal feelings about mental illness is astounding. Especially when she talks about not being able to see people like Hutton because she doesn’t want to burden her with her problems. Her empathic writing recalls Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel. Yet I like that she’s always trying to shake off the black cloud hanging over her head or use it productively to her advantage. There’s claustrophobia, but she also acknowledges how time, setting, circumstance, and people allow a person’s perspective to shift and expand.
2. Since Hutton eventually calls Hersh out on going MIA after a particularly harrowing bout of depression, I’ll use this as a transition to say that I really like their kinship. They don’t seem to have much in common. Hutton often gives Hersh advice on stardom and glamour that her young charge doesn’t want to take, in part because she suspects such tips destroyed her mentor when she was a celebrity. Yet they get each other’s oddities on a fundamental level. 4AD co-founder Ivo Watts Russell connects with Hersh on a similar level. I appreciate that Hersh’s internal universe is conscious of this. Recognizing that some people really love you and are capable of staggering generosity is sometimes the one thing that lifts you out of your brain’s darkest depths.
3. Betty Hutton attending a Throwing Muses concert with gold hair and a priest as her plus one? Amen.
3A. An early Throwing Muses show sounds epic. Their stage set-up included lights, projections, and a TV monitor blaring static with mannequin legs growing out from under it. If only I weren’t 2 in Houston and was 18 in Providence. I also wish I could have helped defend them against sexist, lazy sound guys but they held their own.
4. The Throwing Muses were a group of smart, considerate kids. When confronted with the news that Hersh is pregnant, they figure out how to play quietly so as not to disturb that baby and makes sure its mom gets plenty of rest. Disbanding is never an option because they’re committed to what they’re doing. I’m pretty sure most bands would have kicked Hersh out of the group she co-founded.
4A. Hersh loves how being pregnant makes her feel like a superhero. Likewise, her band mates are fascinated by it.
4B. It’s not commented upon, but my guitar instructor pointed out that they must have had tons of support from their parents. Gigging steadily and getting signed when you’re 18? Some older person cares, financially or otherwise.
4C. Hersh never really discusses her blended family with stepsister Donelly–only the one she formed with her, drummer Dave Narcizo, and bassist Leslie Langston. But I like the glimpses into their acquired sisterhood, like when New Englander Donelly corrects Atlantean transplant Hersh on the correct pronunciation of “thing” and tries to remove “ya’ll” from her vocabulary. Hersh’s defense of the offending second person plural term makes this Southern girl nod with approval.
5. I learned about the universal couch, which you can find in any venue. It’s something of a home for the band when they’re alone and a prison when they’re strapped to it by music journalists chasing the buzz while missing the point. Their line of questioning is often so wrong-headed and I love how Hersh and the Muses play around with them, especially when they make assumptions about Hersh’s feminist politics. I also love when Hersh says that she’s missing so much great, original music from the bands they’re touring with by being subjected to pointless interviews.
6. It’s never revealed who the father of her child is, nor does Hersh discuss what it was like to pick up the guitar at 14. They’re just facts. Hersh seems to have evolved past both of them. While I wanted to know more about how Hersh learned to master her instrument as someone almost a year into playing my Epiphone, I’m glad she bypassed the conventional narrative of a girl becoming self-actualized by her guitar. At 18, this was probably the farthest thing from her mind. Plus, rock journalists seem to be reminding her enough how exceptional it is to be a woman who plays electric guitar that she probably wanted to bury any recollection of the initial clumsiness that comes from developing the muscle memory to play scales, chords, and strumming patterns.
7. I love how she veers into tangents and mental in-roads about the nausea induced by the sight of greasy donuts or the thrill from swimming in violent, cold water or the exact color of a chord or the power of pausing to look at Christmas lights or how her band is like spinach or whatever else runs through her brain. Her (ugh) musings seem (ugh ugh) thrown together and edge toward hippie wisdom possibly inherited by her bohemian parents, except they’re often brave and profound. Again, the one thing I hope people take away from this book is what a great writer Hersh is. Some of the sentences she puts together absolutely floor me.
I know that Hersh’s book will be met with resistance. Some may think it’s just one structureless yarn from a talented white girl who’s making herself crazy. But I think her decision to write herself out of depression and soldier into her twenties with a band and a kid on her terms is pretty admirable. I believe the complicated ways in which she expresses and documents this exhilarating time is honest. I think she nails how time passes in life — that nothing seems to happen until everything transpires at once. For anyone who thinks they may relate to this great skein of an autobiography, I highly recommend it.